COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.
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Overcrowded state prisons face some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation. A single state prison in rural Arkansas is the site of more than 20 percent of all of the cases in the state. Similar scenarios are occurring throughout the country with thousands of inmates, corrections staff, and law enforcement now infected. Hospitals in some states are already running out of ventilators because of prison outbreaks.
Oklahoma’s prisons are 107 percent overcapacity. This overcrowding combined with a prison system filled with immune compromised and aging inmates only heightens the risk from COVID-19. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections could significantly reduce the risk our hospitals face by creating a list of non-violent, medically vulnerable inmates who can be considered for medical parole by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.
Oklahoma’s inmates are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
Thousands of incarcerated Oklahomans are at increased risk from COVID-19. Nationally about half of the people incarcerated in state prisons suffer from at least one chronic condition; 10% report heart conditions, and 15% report asthma. These percentages are far greater than those for the population at large, even when comparing similar age groups. Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis and failed public health policies have produced particularly bad outcomes. More than 12 percent of the people in Oklahoma’s state prisons need treatment for hepatitis C alone, one of the deadliest diseases in the nation. This is significantly higher than the 2 percent hepatitis infection rate outside prisons in Oklahoma.
COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates in the U.S. also show profound racial disparities due to higher rates of pre-existing conditions and less access to health care. More than 80 percent of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Georgia have been African Americans, and in Louisiana, more than 70 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19 are Black. In New Mexico, American Indians make up less than 10 percent of the population, but over a third of COVID-19 cases. These racial inequities intensify the virus threat to Oklahoma prisons. Oklahoma has the highest Black incarceration rate in the nation with 1 in 15 adult Black men incarcerated. Disproportionate incarceration rates among Native and Latinx communities should also be cause for concern especially during a viral outbreak.
Oklahoma’s hospitals could easily be overwhelmed by a prison outbreak
Depending on rural hospitals to care for large numbers of high risk inmates confined in cramped prison conditions could be catastrophic for Oklahoma. Rural Oklahoma hospitals have been struggling for decades, and Oklahoma’s failure to expand Medicaid has made the state’s rural health care crisis worse. Fewer treatment providers, hospital resources and staff means that some infected inmates or prison staff could have to travel more than 100 miles in Oklahoma just to find adequate medical care.
As a general rule, prisons lack accessibility because they are located in areas far from population centers. For example, the Jim Hamilton Correctional Center, located in Hodgen, Oklahoma, is about an hour away from the nearest hospital with adequate resources for COVID-19 treatment. The prison is more than 101 percent over the facility’s rated capacity, and these overcrowded conditions are made more dangerous by the fact that a trip to the nearest hospital could take more than two hours. Infected staff or inmates who can’t access needed ICU space or ventilators are much more likely to die from the symptoms of COVID-19. Numerous Oklahoma prisons in rural areas have thousands of inmates facing similar health care and hospitalization challenges. Prison outbreaks threaten to strain the state’s hospital beds and resources just as the state loosens “safer at home” restrictions.
Medical parole could meet the urgent need for action demanded by this crisis
The risk of a large scale COVID-19 outbreak in Oklahoma prisons demands urgent action. Oklahoma’s medical parole process can be enacted quickly and safely. By law, the Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has the authority to create a list of inmates who have increased medical risk and can be considered for parole. In light of the threat posed by this pandemic, such a list could include thousands of inmates. If the Parole Board begins holding hearings more frequently to manage expedited releases and medical paroles, such releases could be managed responsibly over the coming weeks and months. Many other states have dramatically increased their use of compassionate release since the start of this crisis, and federal courts are already forcing some prisons to take action.
In March, a group of organizations from across the political spectrum made recommendations to reduce the virus’ impact in Oklahoma prisons, including use of medical parole. Others are continuing the work to move this issue forward, including an online petition that urges policymakers to consider expedited release for:
Pregnant women with non-violent charges
Those with non-violent charges who are older than 60
Those with severe medical conditions that compromise their immune systems who have non-violent charges
Those eligible for release in the next 3-6 months who have non-violent charges
Those scheduled to make court appearances in other states or being transferred to ICE
Spread of the virus within Oklahoma’s incarceration system will remain an ongoing threat to vulnerable inmates, corrections staff and rural hospitals. Without decisive action from state leaders to reduce its transmission, the virus has very real potential to make both prisons and our communities less safe in the long run.